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Snapshot and Satellites: A Creative Pairing

The following piece was written by OAS Communications Coordinator Ryan Bower for the Snapshot Wisconsin newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, visit this link.

A few months ago, the Snapshot team said farewell to someone who has worked with the Snapshot Wisconsin team for several years. John Clare, a former graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, completed his PhD in December, 2020 and has moved on to a post-doctoral position at the University of California-Berkley.

While completing his doctoral degree, Clare worked in Drs. Ben Zuckerberg and Phil Townsend’s labs, and his research has helped push Snapshot Wisconsin to the next level, expanding the capabilities and reach of Snapshot Wisconsin. Although he played a behind-the-scenes role, one of a few students studying how to use Snapshot data in new and useful ways, his contributions to the team are appreciated, so the Snapshot team decided to share a piece of his research with those of you who follow this newsletter.

Clare first connected with Snapshot Wisconsin when current Snapshot team leader, Jen Stenglein, got in touch. Stenglein, Quantitative Research Scientist at the DNR and a leading member on the data analysis side of Snapshot Wisconsin, was interested in the sampling parameters of Clare’s Masters research, which also dealt with trail cameras. Stenglein hoped to learn from that project and apply lessons to Snapshot Wisconsin.

“I didn’t know about Snapshot Wisconsin until after talking with [Stenglein],” said Clare. “I later saw a posting for a PhD assistantship related to the program, and I applied. That is how I first got involved.”

Two beavers interacting in a stream

Two beavers captured on a Snapshot WI trail camera in Ashland County.

Clare was one of the first graduate students working with the project. He initially helped get the program up, and later he started to sort through the data and deliver some useful results.

While we don’t have the space to cover everything he worked on for his dissertation, Clare and the Snapshot team wanted to share a small piece of Clare’s research with the volunteer community and showcase part of how Clare contributed to the project.

Leveraging Snapshot Data

A central goal of Clare’s dissertation was to develop strategies to better leverage the spatial and temporal capabilities of the Snapshot database. Clare mentioned that two unique features of Snapshot Wisconsin are that Snapshot operates both statewide and year-round. Many other monitoring programs can’t operate at such wide and long scales because it would be too resource intensive for them. Fortunately, Snapshot has the help of thousands of people across Wisconsin (and the globe) to overcome that resource barrier and operate statewide and year-round.

“[Using data from all over the state and from all times of the year], we can explore questions in ways we didn’t have the ability to before,” said Clare, and Clare investigated a few of these questions in his dissertation. Two of Clare’s research questions were what broad factors drive where species are distributed and how species are active across the year.

To answer both questions, Clare needed to build a special type of model that leveraged both spatial and temporal data at the same time. Not an easy feat.

Setting Up Clare’s Model

Clare needed a unique model that could account for how species are spatially distributed around the state and temporally distributed throughout the year. “I think it’s important to take advantage of both the spatial and temporal components at the same time,” said Clare. “The question isn’t just where are species located, but also how species are distributed at time x, time y and time z.”

Both the spatial and temporal scales were needed because there are components of the environment that vary strongly across space and time. Snow depth, for example, is not fixed over the course of the year. One week, there may be six inches, and the next week there may be twelve. Snow depth also varies spatially. A few miles could be the difference between seeing snow on the ground or not. Many environmental factors are highly dynamic and variable like this, so Clare needed to think of these factors within a model that accounts for both.

It is common for models to use one type of data but incorporating both is a challenge. The main challenge is having enough data (and data of the right types) to run this kind of analysis. Fortunately, Snapshot images have both location and time data attached to each image.

A doe and two turkeys in a field

Another unique aspect of Clare’s model is that it considers multiple species at once. “We were pretty sure that individual species are distributed dynamically throughout space and time, but entire communities have not been heavily studied in the same way,” Clare said. “The appeal of using a spatial-temporal structure across the entire community is that we can explore which species are interacting with others at different parts of the state and at different times of the year.”

This concept isn’t new to the realm of modeling, but it is hard to accomplish. Researchers would need separate data for each additional species they added in the model. It can be hard enough getting data for one species, let alone multiple. However, that is where Snapshot shines best. Volunteers can tag up to 50 unique species in their Snapshot photos, so an equal number of species-specific datasets can be pulled and created from the larger Snapshot dataset.

“The advantage of a multispecies approach is that you can take into account the responses of each of those species, as opposed to modeling one species and assuming the results apply uniformly for other species,” said Clare.

Driving Distribution and Activity

Knowing he had the ability to answer his questions, Clare thought about which factors might be most influential across the entire community, in terms of predicting where species were located and how active they are. “We had a couple ideas about what these factors might be,” said Clare. “Some were related to seasonal variation like the amount of snow and the greenness of the vegetation.”

Snow depth can change substantially from day to day, even during the winter. Snow depth could dramatically impact how species move around and where food is available. Snow can even correlate to which species are even seen during parts of the year. For example, black bear behavior is often related to the winter, and thus with snow.

Wisconsin’s black bears sleep through the winter. Since winter is also associated with snow, black bear activity inversely correlates well (in Clare’s model) with snow. When there’s more snow on the ground, we are (most likely) deep into winter and see the least activity from black bears.

Bear_Clark_SSWI000000009609092C

Another environmental variable that Clare was interested in was vegetative greenness. Vegetative greenness is, from space, how green the landscape looks. In the spring, trees will start to bud burst, and the grass will grow. The landscape itself will just be greener than the previous months, and more nutritional energy will flood into the food web. Vegetative greenness varies throughout the year and can impact how animals use the land, depending on when and where food is available.

For example, a black bear’s seasonal activity could reflect the cycle of vegetative greenness. Black bears maximize their activity at times of the year when there are more food resources around, either plants or prey. These times of the year may strongly correlate to peak greenness of the landscape, or so Clare theorized.

But you might be thinking, “Wait, can the Snapshot cameras measure vegetative greenness and snow depth from the trail camera photos?” The answer is possible, but more research is needed before we can use the cameras that way. Instead, Clare used daily satellite images of the state to calculate vegetative greenness and snow depth.

Linking Satellites with Snapshot Wisconsin

Clare used satellite images from NASA to measure snow depth and vegetative greenness. Part of Clare’s assistantship position was funded by a NASA grant whose purpose was to figure out ways to integrate a continuous stream of animal observations with a continuous stream of Earth observations coming from space. Between the trail camera data and the satellite data, Clare aimed to find connections that were meaningful to wildlife management.

Consider winter severity in deer population modeling, for example. Winter severity is already used by the DNR to predict the impact of winter on deer populations and plays a partial role in making harvest decisions for the subsequent fall. One hope of the NASA collaboration was to develop more integrated measures like winter severity for deer overwintering, especially ones that impact multiple species in similar ways.

Using the images from satellites passing over the state, Clare derived data on land use, surface temperature, vegetative greenness and snow depth. All of these variables were tested across spatial and temporal scales for all classifiable species.

Fox_Red_Waukesha_SSWI000000007462874

Confirmation and Surprise

Clare wanted to share two results from his dissertation with the Snapshot community. One of these results was a confirmation of what he expected, but the other was surprising and took longer for him to wrap his head around.

“I wasn’t surprised that snow depth was a major negative driver of species activity,” Clare said. “We expected that because snow provides a refuge for some species [and a signal for other behavioral changes like hibernation].” These behavior changes cause sightings of these species to drop off during the winter and strengthens the negative correlation between snow depth and species activity. Snow is also associated with winter, when species tend to be less active to conserve energy resources.

What was more surprising was that the peak period of species activity was not associated with the peak of the growing season, or when the land was at its greenest. Clare expected these two peaks to match because there would be a maximum amount of food on the landscape. However, after some rethinking, Clare came up with a new theory about why peak activity wasn’t at peak greenness. “What we [now] think is happening is that animals don’t have to move around as much during the peak of the growing season. They don’t have to go as far to find food. It is all in one
aisle,” Clare said.

As for linking satellite data with wildlife data, snow depth and vegetative greenness both were the best predictors of species distribution and activity out of the environmental variables Clare tested. Even though vegetative greenness didn’t function how he predicted it would, it still was a good predictor of community activity and distribution. Both of these variables showed promise as potential satellite-based metrics that NASA and the DNR can use to better predict how the environment is impacting the greater wildlife community.

What’s Next?

Now that Snapshot Wisconsin has a few years of data across most of the state, Snapshot will start looking into broader trends like year-to-year weather variation and how species habitat associations may vary from year-to-year.

“As we anticipate global changes, including more extreme events like polar vortexes, heavy rain and droughts, there is a need to understand how species react to different weather phenomenon. By looking at how species are distributed at finer time scales, we can start to address those types of questions. That wasn’t the exact focus of my research, but my research can help us start to quantify what [counts] as an extreme event for different species,” explained Clare. However, that work will be done by someone else, since Clare has graduated and moved to California.

Clare took a moment to reflect on his years working with Snapshot Wisconsin. Clare said, “My favorite part has been seeing the broader project move from a concept to an operating system. It has been really exciting to see that dream come to fruition. Most of that credit is due to the folks on the Snapshot team like Jen Stenglein and Christine Anhalt-Depies.”

Clare was also appreciative of the community of volunteers that sustain Snapshot Wisconsin. “It has been rewarding to see so many Wisconsin residents get involved,” said Clare. “I’ve been blown away with how smoothly and effectively it all has worked.”

With Clare moving on to the next step of his career, the Snapshot team wishes him the best and thanks him for helping the program get set up and running, as well as his contributions on the research side of Snapshot.

Thanks John Clare, and good luck!

Partnering with the Natural Resources Foundation and a New Snapshot Store!

The following piece was written by OAS Communications Coordinator Ryan Bower for the Snapshot Wisconsin newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, visit this link.

Some of our volunteers may already know that Snapshot Wisconsin recently partnered with the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin (NRF), but we at Snapshot haven’t shared many of the details about this partnership yet, including new opportunities available to volunteers and a Snapshot merchandise store!

Christine Anhalt-Depies, Project Coordinator for Snapshot Wisconsin, virtually sat down with Cait Williamson, Director of Conservation Programs within the NRF, to chat about what this partnership means to their programs, as well as highlight how their volunteers benefit from this partnership.

What is the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin?

The NRF is a non-profit foundation that is all about funding conservation work. The NRF has a long history of supporting the DNR’s priority projects, especially those that involve species with the greatest conservation need. The NRF also connects people to conservation opportunities throughout the state through their Field Trip program, the Great Wisconsin Birdathon and many other funded programs.

The NRF was established in 1986 after significant cuts to the DNR budget. The DNR leadership at the time recognized a need to have an independent foundation to bridge private sector support for natural resources and conservation work being done, so the NRF grew to fill that need.
Williamson added, “We support over 200 different projects each year from small-scale school projects to large-scale conservation projects, even [projects] at the federal level. Our niche is conservation funding, leveraging resources from corporations, foundations and individuals. Putting those financial resources to the highest priority conservation needs for Wisconsin.”

Snapshot Wisconsin fits well into the types of projects that the NRF funds, so this partnership was a natural fit. Plus, forming this partnership had a special twist in store for Anhalt-Depies and Williamson.

A logo for the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin

Forming this Partnership

Anhalt-Depies and Williamson first sat down over coffee over a year ago to discuss forming this partnership. However, the meeting was more than just a brainstorming session about what the partnership would look like. It was a reunion for Anhalt-Depies and Williamson.

The pair first met while Anhalt-Depies was working on her project for her master’s degree nearly a decade ago. Part of the project involved radio-collaring wolves, so Anhalt-Depies collaborated with the DNR. Meanwhile, Williamson was an intern with the DNR, assigned to work with the wolf program. Anhalt-Depies and Williamson worked together very closely for months until the field work was done, then they went their separate ways.

Anhalt-Depies later went on to work with Snapshot Wisconsin and eventually became the project coordinator. On the other hand, Williamson started working at the NRF and became the one who builds partnerships with the DNR (and other conservation or education groups), as well as determines what the NRF’s priorities are. Williamson said, “I have the fun job of giving away the funds we help raise and knowing those are going to have the most impact they can.”

Anhalt-Depies explained what motivated her to reach out to Williamson again. “As Snapshot grew to a state-wide program, we identified the need to partner with groups that could help us expand our reach, especially in the area of supporting education. NRF seems like a natural fit, based on their goals and mission. I reached out to [Williamson]. We sat down and had a great brainstorming session about what a partnership between the two would look like and how we could help each other reach our goals.”

Williamson added, “It was fun to reconnect with [Anhalt-Depies]. We [at the NRF] have heard about and been informally in-the-loop on Snapshot Wisconsin, so it seemed like a natural fit because of what Snapshot is – engaging people and providing critical data. It was a no brainer for us.”

“It’s awesome to be able to offer yet another opportunity for our members and our partners to engage with Wisconsin’s natural resources,” said Williamson, and engage, they can. Not only do Snapshot volunteers benefit, but so do the NRF’s members.

How do Snapshot Volunteers and NRF’s Members Benefit?

Anhalt-Depies shared how this partnership benefits Snapshot volunteers. “This partnership helps expand our reach,” said Anhalt-Depies. “It brings the Snapshot program to a new audience, helping us to continue to grow.”

Anhalt-Depies continued, “The fundraising support NRF brings to the partnership will also help to increase our educational impact. Roughly 15% of Snapshot volunteers are educators. This partnership will expand the resources available to these educators, helping them to better integrate conservation education into their classroom.”

At the same time, the NRF and its members benefit from connecting to Snapshot Wisconsin. Williamson said, “From a conservation side, we [the NRF] are all about supporting priority needs for our state. Science-based conservation and the data that informs it is super critical, so we are happy to be able to support Snapshot and growing the program.”

“For our members, Snapshot Wisconsin is a really good way to connect them with something they can do,” continued Williamson. “Whether they are hosting cameras or classifying images on Zooniverse, it gives them one more way that they can give back to Wisconsin’s natural resources.”

A blue sweatshirt with the Snapshot Wisconsin design

A Message From Our NRF Partners

Another important way that the NRF is helping Snapshot Wisconsin is through providing funding opportunities, either through donations or merchandise sales. Our partners shared with us a special message for Snapshot volunteers, announcing these new ways to help out the Snapshot program.

At the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, we believe that nature has inherent value and that people have the ability to make a difference. We are the bridge connecting people who want to help with meaningful opportunities to make a lasting impact on Wisconsin’s lands, waters, wildlife and future stewards. We are very excited about our new partnership with Snapshot Wisconsin, which will connect our NRF members with meaningful volunteer opportunities, directly fund efforts that inform conservation decisions and help us learn more about Wisconsin’s amazing wildlife.

Want to show off your love for Snapshot Wisconsin and help support this incredible program? Check out our Snapshot Wisconsin storefront, featuring t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats and mugs – every purchase directly supports Snapshot! You can also donate directly by visiting
WisConservation.org/donate and designating your gift to Snapshot Wisconsin.

Between connecting our volunteers to the resources of the NRF network and new funding to expand what Snapshot is able to do, the Snapshot team is excited for this partnership. There is so much synergy between Snapshot’s goals and NRF’s mission that this partnership is a natural fit.

The partnership has also brought back together Anhalt-Depies and Williamson, and each shared some parting words for readers.

Williamson said, “Five years back, we had a visioning session about what we were really accomplishing for conservation in the state. We are not the boots on the ground ourselves, but what we do is connect people to that. There are so many ways people can make a difference. Whether it is through philanthropy, volunteering their time or just the personal choices they make to support our state’s natural resources… We are all about how people can make a difference, and Snapshot is one of those ways.”

Anhalt-Depies added, “Snapshot is people-powered research. We have thousands of volunteers who are donating their time and making a huge impact on the number of photos collected and total information gathered on our state’s natural resources. This partnership with the NRF helps to make their efforts go just a bit further, and at the end of the day, that is what matters.”

The Snapshot Team’s Favorite Photos from the First 50 Million!

The following piece was written by OAS Communications Coordinator Ryan Bower for the Snapshot Wisconsin newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, visit this link.

Snapshot Wisconsin recently reached an important milestone: its 50 millionth photo! We’ve been watching the tally of photos get closer and closer to 50 million for the last few months, and we are thrilled that the moment is finally here.

Snapshot Wisconsin started as a pilot program in only two counties in 2016 but expanded statewide in 2018. Today, we have over 1,800 volunteers, monitoring over 2,100 trail cameras across the state. Furthermore, the Snapshot program receives approximately 45,000 photos per day from all these cameras. Just stop and think about how incredible that is!

As a thank you to everyone who has helped the program out or followed its success (and to celebrate the 50 millionth photo milestone), the Snapshot Wisconsin team selected some of their favorite photos from the first 50 million and used them to build an interactive map of Wisconsin. This tool highlights each photo and tells a short story about the photo itself or the species shown. It serves as a “snapshot” of how the program has grown over the years.

Rare species sightings, unusual animal behaviors, species facts, and even a few multi-species encounters can all be seen in the interactive map. Check it out!

A collage of wildlife photos in the shape of Wisconsin

Rare Species Update: Moose Sightings

Moose are considered a rare species in the state of Wisconsin. They used to be found across the northern part of the state, but there hasn’t been an established population since the early 1900s1. Sightings of moose that wander over from Michigan or Minnesota are occasionally reported, but still rare.

That’s why our team was excited to discover several recent moose photos on our Snapshot Wisconsin trail cameras. We captured our first moose photo back in 2018 in Vilas County. In the past two months, we’ve had four additional sightings across several counties. It is unclear if this is the same individual, or several different moose.

Below are some photos of the moose captured in Iron, Price, and Burnett Counties.

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We interviewed some volunteers who recently captured these moose photos on their Snapshot Wisconsin trail cameras. Steve from Price County said, “My initial reaction was complete shock. This camera check had been especially fruitful, and I had gone through quite a few pictures when the moose showed up on my screen. It was so drastically different in size and color to the deer we had been seeing up until that point that it took a second for my brain to process what I was looking at. My wife was sitting next to me and we both realized what it was at about the same time. I think she was even more excited about it than I was! We know there are moose that have been occasionally spotted in the state, but we never dreamed we would see one in our own backyard!”

When asked if seeing a rare species has impacted his experience as a Snapshot Wisconsin volunteer, Steve said, “It’s been a lot of fun this whole time but seeing a rare animal like this first-hand really makes it more exciting. The thought that we could potentially see something like this again is a great motivator!”

Amanda from Iron County said she was ecstatic when she first saw the moose pictures. “Even though it took nearly a year for me to finally capture a moose, I have spent countless hours hiking to and from my Snapshot camera and each trip out is an adventure. I feel blessed to live in such a beautiful area and enjoy such amazing wildlife, but the moose in particular have really drawn me in, and I am so lucky to live in an area where we can see them.”

Thank you to all of our volunteers who host trail cameras and help classify photos on Zooniverse. Your work helps us collect important wildlife data! If you’ve recently seen a rare species such as a moose, cougar, or lynx, please report it using the DNR’s Large Mammal Observation form.

1. Watermolen, D. Murrell, M. Checklists of Wisconsin Vertebrates. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 2001. p 38.

Falling Into Field Work in the Flambeau

The Snapshot Wisconsin team recently completed a second round of elk camera fieldwork in the Flambeau River State Forest. Below, Michael Kamp describes his field work experience along with his Snapshot teammate, Jamie Bugel.

The late morning sun was beginning to peek out as the Flambeau River glided serenely by. I watched downed maple leaves, their edges curled up, drifting down the river to unknown destinations. No boats traveled by this early fall morning. Taking one last look at the silent flow, Jamie and I walked back to our separate vehicles. Field work could not wait forever.

A river and trees

Nearby the Chippewa River. Photo by Ally Magnin.

After coasting down County Highway M, all the while on alert for crossing elk, we pulled off onto a gravel road. Shortly down the gravel road we parked in front of a gate to a walking trail. Stepping out of my vehicle, I gazed down the corridor of stunning fall colors. Auburn, golden, and rosy hues led the way to the site of our trail camera deployment. We strode down the path, following our GPS, towards the specific coordinates. A raven flew overhead cawing loudly – much throatier than its cousin the crow. Once we were within 20 meters, we veered off the treeless path to work our way through downed branches and a cluster of aspen trees. We selected a paper birch tree within a couple meters of the GPS point and positioned the trail camera facing north.

Truck and Subaru in front of trees

Field work vehicles parked in Flambeau River State Forest. Photos by Jamie Bugel (left) and Michael Kamp (right).

Next on the schedule was checking a trail camera down Lost Mile Road – a fitting name for such a lane far removed from town streets and city blocks. The sun now shone high above as the Subaru took the bumps and puddles of Lost Mile Road in rhythm. Once again, a metal gate impeded any vehicles hoping to pass, so Jamie and I continued on foot. This trail camera was further from the walking path, through swaying sandy brown grass and over the occasional muddy spot. A couple of eastern hemlocks, seemingly out of place in this open area, stood sentinel as we checked the trail camera. The batteries replaced and SD card in hand, we trekked back to our vehicles.   

Snapshot team member hiking in woods

Snapshot team member walking to trail camera. Photo by Ally Magnin.

Using the bed of Jamie’s pickup truck as an impromptu table, we ate a pleasant lunch before heading to the following trail camera. We drove a short way as a light breeze swirled fallen leaves on and off the road. The trail camera lay a couple hundred meters south of this gravel way.  We headed into the woods, ducking under dense shrubbery and paused to marvel at a towering yellow birch tree. Maybe elk wandered beneath that tree’s branches in the late 1800’s before they were extirpated from the state. After reintroduction efforts and over 100 years later, the same tree might experience elk again. Moving on, we found the trail camera without much difficulty, lying just above a small marsh. Another trail camera checked.

Checking the last trail camera for the day passed in much the same manner – hiking quietly through the forest undisturbed by anyone else. Walking back from the trail camera, we lingered on the crest of a hill to observe the late afternoon sun. The brilliant rays pierced a forest opening and illuminated our surroundings in a golden glow. A photo could simply not do the scene justice. However, I can still picture that scene. Rather than a digital likeness, it is instead an enduring image etched in my mind’s eye.

A road with trees

Views from Flambeau River State Forest. Photo by Ally Magnin.

When I think back to that sunny Friday during the tail end of September, I do not solely think about the trail cameras checked and data collected. I think about a day where Jamie and I had no cell service. There were no pings from our phones regarding news alerts or social media posts. There were no interruptions from the outside world. There was only a radio to call for help if needed. The gift of that day was we were truly present in the moment. That was the experience of fall in the Flambeau.

Building The Data Dashboard – From Inception to Release

The following piece was written by OAS Communications Coordinator Ryan Bower for the Snapshot Wisconsin newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, visit this link.

This edition of the Snapshot newsletter is focused on a new Snapshot Wisconsin product, the Data Dashboard. The Data Dashboard is an interactive tool that let’s the public explore the data that Snapshot has collected in a new and exciting way. This dashboard marks an important step towards Snapshot’s goal of making its data more accessible to the volunteers who helped collect it, as well as the public more broadly.

You can learn more about the development of the dashboard, as well as what features are currently available on it, in this edition of the Snapshot newsletter, or you can check out the dashboard for yourself at https://widnr-snapshotwisconsin.shinyapps.io/DataDashboard/.

The idea of the Data Dashboard originated about two years ago, stemming from a desire to bring what Snapshot has learned full circle back to the volunteers and public. However, no one knew at the time what would eventually manifest from that desire. No one knew that the Data Dashboard was on the horizon.

The core purpose of Snapshot Wisconsin is to provide data for wildlife decision support and bringing citizens into that process. Citizen science projects like Snapshot Wisconsin rely upon the public’s aid to accomplish tasks that would be unfeasible or impossible otherwise, and making sure volunteers feel fulfilled and satisfied with their time investment is important to the Snapshot team.

As part of her dissertation research, Christine Anhalt-Depies, the project coordinator of Snapshot Wisconsin, investigated why volunteers joined the program, hoping to learn their motivations and reasons for staying. Her surveys taught the team much about what they needed to focus on to keep volunteers feeling fulfilled.

Two of the survey’s findings stood out to the team. First, many volunteers cared deeply about contributing to wildlife monitoring and wanted to see what wildlife was in their area and the state. Volunteers also wanted to see the fruit of their work, how the project was contributing to wildlife management decisions across Wisconsin. The Snapshot team knew from these findings that they needed something that would close the loop, bringing the data full circle.

To help close the loop, the Snapshot team decided to focus on making Snapshot findings more available and accessible to the public. They needed a tool that everyone could use and learn from. With that daunting task in front of them, the team started by investigating what kinds of platforms were even available for this type of visualization tool.

The Snapshot team explored many options but ultimately settled on R Shiny, an extension of the statistical software R, and soon a prototype was being built. The initial prototype of the dashboard started as a map of Wisconsin, but the team wanted to show more. The team needed a specialist with a vision of what the tool could become.

A Fresh Face Joins The Team

In November of this last year (2019), a new member joined the Snapshot Wisconsin team, and he would play a leading role in developing the Data Dashboard.

Ryan Bemowski, Data Scientist and Engineer at the Wisconsin DNR and developer of the Data Dashboard, recalled what it was like joining the project at this time. “There were many discussions still going on about what the tool was going to look like. The team was trying to figure out how they could best display the data in a way that was meaningful to volunteers and the public,” said Bemowski. “My primary task was to get the visualizations made by deciding what data to display and come up with ideas for the visualizations.”

Bemowski spent the next eight months reimagining the look and feel of the Data Dashboard. Bemowski kept one central piece of the prototype, the map of Wisconsin, but simplified it to show the percentage of cameras in each county or management unit that have detected the selected species at least once.

During these months, he also dived into what other data would be shown on the dashboard. Snapshot Wisconsin cameras have taken over 47 million photos to date, but many of these photos don’t contain animals. The majority of the photos that do contain animals will be classified correctly. However, the team knows that not all the photo classifications are accurate, complicating their use. Some species are particularly difficult to classify, often being mistaken for similar species, such as wolves (below left) and coyotes (below right).

Bemowski and the team wanted to show as much data as possible. However, they didn’t want to add data to the dashboard that was inaccurate, so they needed a way to determine how accurate the community was at classifying each species.

Bemowski explained the team’s approach to solving the inaccuracy issue. “We ran a round of accuracy analyses to see how accurate [classifications] are for each species, but we ended up only able to do the analysis for certain subsets of species,” said Bemowski. An accuracy analysis is a test to determine how many of the photos of a species are correctly classified using a sample of photos. The team’s accuracy analysis yielded an accuracy rate for most species. However, it didn’t work for certain species. “When you run an accuracy analysis, you must have a big enough sample for each species. In our case, some species like beaver just didn’t have enough photos to be analyzed properly.”

Additionally, a few species were analyzed but still excluded because of their low accuracy rate. Volunteers are overall very good at identifying most Wisconsin species, but some species are difficult and had a low accuracy. Bemowski mentioned that the team will continue to run more accuracy analyses and work towards getting all species on the dashboard eventually.

The Soft Launch, Feedback And Improvements

After much work, Bemowski and the team were ready mid-July to test out their tool with a soft launch to a handful of volunteers. They chose the 1,700 volunteers who host Snapshot trail cameras and asked for feedback on the dashboard. Around 90 responses came back, and three main themes emerged that the team began to think about.

First, the volunteers wanted clearer explanations about why species were included or excluded. Second, there was a desire that certain species be added to the dashboard, namely wolf and elk. Lastly, volunteers wanted to see data at a more granular scale, such as being able to see the data for specific cameras instead of countywide.

After reading the survey responses, Bemowski and the team set about incorporating this feedback and getting the dashboard ready for the full launch to the public. The first theme was easy to address. Bemowski added a clickable pop-up (below the species list) to the dashboard that shows the accuracy rate for each species. Simultaneously, Bemowski and the team were able to finish the accuracy analyses of three more species and added them to the dashboard: Snowshoe hair, pheasant and fisher.

The second theme that emerged was a desire to see certain, high-interest species on the dashboard. Bemowski explained, “The reason we excluded some species [for the soft launch] is because, below a certain accuracy, we know some of the data is incorrect. If a species has a 50% accuracy rate, for example, we know that 50% of the data being shown is correct and 50% is incorrect.” The data for species with an accuracy rate below 95% is still stored and used in other ways, but the team wanted all the data on the dashboard to meet a minimum quality standard.

The team thought of a clever way to balance the public’s desire to see high-interest species like wolf and elk with their data accuracy standards. The photos of species with low accuracy and species of special interest go through an extra round of classification by species experts to confirm which photos are correct, so the accuracy of the expert-classified subset of photos is 100% and meets the data quality standards. The Snapshot team collectively decided that the best way to include the data for elk and wolves was to only use the expert-confirmed photos on the dashboard. Bemowski said, “We want to show correct data, as accurate as possible, without holding anything back.” This decision was the best compromise the team came up with.

The last theme focuses on granularity, or the scale to which you can “zoom in.” Some volunteers wanted to see beyond the county scale and look at data from individual cameras. Bemowski was conflicted about the topic of granularity though. “We don’t want to give the exact latitude and longitude of the cameras because of privacy concerns, but we still wanted to give as much granularity as possible.” Showing data at the county level is as granular (or “zoomed in”) as Snapshot can currently go, but the team hopes to eventually have individual dashboards for each camera’s host so that they can see the data for their cameras. However, that is still in the planning stage.A map of wisconsin showing bobcat detection by counties

What’s Next For The Dashboard?

Now that the dashboard is released, Bemowski reflected upon what the dashboard means to the project. “I’ve realized recently how big of a step this dashboard is for Snapshot Wisconsin: To go from collecting millions of photos to showing people what the data is saying and really analyzing that in depth. That’s a big step. Looking back, the intention has always been to transform Snapshot data into actionable outcomes,” but the Data Dashboard marks a major step towards Snapshot sharing its findings with the public.

The Data Dashboard’s current version is focused on making Snapshot’s findings available to the public, but more updates and additions to the dashboard are already on the planning board. “The Data Dashboard is an evolving product,” said Bemowski. “We are going to go through many iterations of it to improve the quality and abundance of data and species available. The next step is to build upon the dashboard so it can be more meaningful for decision makers, such as the county deer adivory councils (CDACs) and other wildlife management organizations around Wisconsin.”

Bemowski offered some advice for anyone going outside to interact with nature. “Improve your chances of seeing your favorite species by using the Dashboard to observe wildlife during their times of peak activity or use the dashboard to see if your favorite species have been detected in your county. Even if you don’t see your favorite species, you may be surprised at other wildlife you do see.”

Bemowski and the Snapshot team are momentarily celebrating reaching this important milestone before they continue to improve the dashboard. Bemowski said, “I wish I had something like this as a kid. I grew up in Wisconsin. I grew up a hunter and fisher; someone who enjoys the outdoors. I always heard that there isn’t enough information about wildlife, that people just don’t know what is there, and that all the ‘guesses’ from wildlife organizations [about what is around] aren’t true.”

“But the Data Dashboard is as close as you can get to really knowing what is out there,” continued Bemowski. “Drawing from a growing collection of over 2.3 million animal sightings from over 2,200 cameras locations across Wisconsin, the dashboard is a really awesome way to discover and experience these animal sightings.”

If you want to explore the Data Dashboard yourself, you can access it at https://widnr-snapshotwisconsin.shinyapps.io/DataDashboard/.

A Volunteer Explores The Data Dashboard

The following piece was written by OAS Communications Coordinator Ryan Bower for the Snapshot Wisconsin newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, visit this link.

This edition of the Snapshot newsletter is focused on a new Snapshot Wisconsin product, the Data Dashboard. The Data Dashboard is an interactive tool that let’s the public explore the data that Snapshot has collected in a new and exciting way. This dashboard marks an important step towards Snapshot’s goal of making its data more accessible to the volunteers who helped collect it, as well as the public more broadly.

You can learn more about the development of the dashboard, as well as what features are currently available on it, in this edition of the Snapshot newsletter, or you can check out the dashboard for yourself at https://widnr-snapshotwisconsin.shinyapps.io/DataDashboard/.

Snapshot Wisconsin released its new data visualization tool to the public today. The tool is called the Data Dashboard and is a major step towards bringing the project full circle. The Data Dashboard offers volunteers and the public a new way to engage directly with this data, letting people choose which data they want to visualize.

At launch, the data for 18 animal species is available to explore, including how active species are during different times of the day and year and how the species are spatially distributed across the state. Data can be viewed for specific counties or statewide, and the data from maps and graphs can even be downloaded to share with others.

Christine Anhalt-Depies, project coordinator for Snapshot Wisconsin, described the intention and purpose of the dashboard. “The purpose of the dashboard is to close the loop – to make sure that people who are involved in collecting data have an opportunity to see the outputs of their work,” said Anhalt-Depies. “This first iteration of the dashboard is focused on giving the public a chance to explore data they’ve helped to generate.”

Exploring The Data Dashboard With A Volunteer 

One of the best features of the Data Dashboard is that it lets people explore the wildlife in our state at their pace. The dashboard is open ended and can be explored in whatever order you want, but sometimes a guide is nice to follow along with. A member of the Snapshot team virtually sat down with a long-term Snapshot volunteer on Skype and let them explore the Data Dashboard.

Tim Sprain has been a volunteer with Snapshot Wisconsin for nearly 3 years. He hosts three Snapshot cameras in three separate counties. Sprain is a middle school teacher and uses Snapshot in his classroom to describe biology concepts in an interactive way. Sprain shared his screen with Sarah Cameron, a member of the Snapshot team and head of the educator engagement side of Snapshot. Here are some of the highlights from the discussion between Sprain and Cameron.

The Map Of Wisconsin – Counties and Ecological Landscapes

While Sprain was getting set up to share his screen, Cameron said, “One thing I like to remember when talking about the dashboard is the fact that we were literally sitting in a room at the DNR office about two years back, brainstorming how we can share the data that the volunteers were collecting back with them. We had this grand idea of a dashboard but had no idea how we were going to accomplish it. It’s been really exciting to see the progress over the years and have a product now that we can give back to our volunteers – something they can connect to.”

Sprain agreed and added, “A lot of times, people don’t have the knowledge or resources to understand what animals are in their backyard. I see this dashboard as a huge resource to educate them. My goal [as an educator] is to be a catalyst for experiential learning, and Snapshot Wisconsin is all about making sure people get a chance to be involved.”

“Years ago,” continued Sprain, “[DNR staff] pointed me towards what the DNR offers to families and students other than hunting, fishing and trapping, and I’ve kept up on the email updates that the DNR sends out. When Snapshot Wisconsin came onboard, it was a natural fit.” Sprain finished loading the Data Dashboard on his computer and was ready to explore the dashboard. Sprain started with the map of Wisconsin (on the left side of the dashboard). The map shows how many of the trail cameras in a given area have captured the selected species. The map can be broken into counties or ecological landscapes, such as the Northern highlands or Southwest savanna.

Map of bear detections by county

Map of bear detections by ecological landscape

Sprain said, “I’m excited to share the map of Wisconsin with my students, because it has ecological landscapes. It will help them understand how humans and animals use different landscapes and that animals have adaptations to suit the habitat in their landscape. Habitats are the most important piece towards maintaining our rich diversity of animals and flora in the state, which is an indication of our health as humans. This awareness can help build the understanding that we are all in this together. It’s also cool that you have the ecological zones because ecological borders are more real [to wildlife] than county lines.”

Sprain hovered over the three counties he has cameras in and started clicking on different species. Sprain mentioned how he has had to use a different approach this year to incorporating Snapshot into his teaching, since Sprain’s school district is starting virtually. Sprain explained, “In a normal year, [my class and I] would take a trip in the first week of school. I take them to a forested park and ask them what they notice. The kids ask me questions [about the plant and animals they see], and I introduce Snapshot Wisconsin by showing the trail camera pictures. I ask again, ‘What is this,’ or ‘What do you see now?’”

“Often times students will recognize a deer, but they get confused when they see a coyote, fox or wolf,” said Sprain. Sprain recalled a special moment of discovery he had with his students. “When they saw a fisher, it was just the most wonderful moment of learning. They didn’t know what a fisher is, but [to them] it looked sort of like a wolverine. They couldn’t quite figure it out.” Sprain used this moment to teach his students something new about fishers. “Now, they feel this connection to knowing something that they didn’t know before about this mysterious creature living in their bluffs.”

A fisher.

A fisher captured on a Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera.

Sprain hovered over La Crosse county specifically, since that is where the camera that saw the fisher was located. Sprain was excited to discover that there was only one camera out of 13 in the county that had seen a fisher. It was his camera.

Cameron added, “It will be really cool to share with your students that the data they helped collect got that one point out of 13 in La Crosse county. I’m also glad you mentioned fisher, because that wasn’t there [until recently.]” Fisher, as well as four other species, was added to the dashboard in response to the feedback volunteers gave during a soft launch to trail camera hosts.

Sprain joked, “You should have seen the look on the landowner when I shared the [fisher discovery] with the family. They were dumbfounded. They didn’t even know what a fisher was!”

“Oh, that’s so funny,” said Cameron. “That was one of our early and exciting findings of the project, realizing that fishers were a lot farther south in the state than we expected. We’ve had a lot of people come to us and say, ‘Wow I caught a fisher on my property! I didn’t know they were down here.’”

Why Species Were Included Or Excluded

Sprain moved on from the map and started looking more closely at the Species list next to the map. There are 18 species currently available on the dashboard – some common species and some rare like wolf and elk.

“Students always ask after all the carnivores, as well as ones that are unique like porcupine,” said Sprain. “I love that porcupine is on the list! The kids love porcupine.” Between his three cameras and a few annual field trips, Sprain’s class gets to see quite a few of our Wisconsin species. “We don’t have any wolves on our cameras yet, but I see [on the dashboard] that other cameras have picked them up in my counties… so they are there.”

Sprain and Cameron continued to discuss different animals that his students like seeing, and the conversation turned towards species that weren’t included on the species list, namely beaver.

Cameron directed Sprain to look under the species list at the blue text about missing species. Cameron said, “We thought that would be a question that would come up quite a bit, so this popup provides some extra information [on why some species were included and other excluded.]”

This popup explains the main criteria to be included on the dashboard, having a 95% accuracy rate. An accuracy rate is a measure of how often volunteers correctly classify a given species. If photos of a species are classified correctly at least 95% of the time, then that species was added to the dashboard. There is also a table with every species that Snapshot volunteers can classify, such as the partial table below. Each species on the list has an accuracy rate and explanation if it wasn’t included.

Anhalt-Depies jumped back into the conversation and said, “For species with low accuracy, we will eventually be able to provide an expert review of that species’ photos, such as badger with an accuracy of .624 [which is below the .95 or 95% cutoff]. We will be reviewing those photos and including them in a later version of the dashboard.”

The Snapshot team knows there are some classification errors in the data, but anything with an accuracy above .95 is acceptable for this purpose. Sprain ask Anhalt-Depies about the two cameras in Milwaukee county with snowshoe hare detections, and Anhalt-Depies explained that those are likely misclassified and within the 5% of the time the data was incorrect.

Sprain replied, “I like that there is a discussion of accuracy and human error. Science is not perfection, but to see these [accuracy rate] numbers… now I understand why a species wasn’t included.”

Sprain and Cameron each commented on how impressed they were overall with the accuracy of Snapshot volunteers. Cameron said, “One thing I encourage for volunteers who want to help increase their accuracy is to involve others. You [Sprain] mentioned that your students work together to classify photos. My dad calls me basically every time he checks his camera to verify that a photo is an opossum… or a racoon. Just having a couple eyes on the photos increases accuracy but also makes it a more enjoyable experience working with others.”

Sprain jumped in and added, “That is what it is all about, a social network of citizens contributing to science! Working together for a much bigger purpose but also feeling great about seeing the wilderness and ecology in the state of Wisconsin – that is the goal.”

Visualizing Animal Activity and Detection Rates

Soon, Sprain had moved on to the next section of the dashboard, the graph of animal activity. The graph, located on the right side of the dashboard, plots how many times a species has been seen at each hour of the day or each month of the year, depending on which option you choose.

“I like that you can see activity by hour or month,” said Sprain. Sprain started making connections between activity patterns he observed and known behavior of those species. Bears, for example, become more active during the spring and summer months yet are rarely seen during the winter. “I’ll ask my students the question, why are they so active during certain months? Some students think it is a difference in population size, instead of a behavioral difference like preparing for hibernation or reproduction. I get a lot of giggles in the seventh-grade classroom, but the question is very relevant to teaching animal ecology and biology.”

The graph can also be adjusted to show which hours of the day a species is more active. The dashboard shows that sandhill crane, for example, are mainly active during the day but are most active between 10:00am-1:00pm. Bird watchers could increase their chance of spotting one by using the dashboard to find its peak activity times. The same could apply to any of the 18 species shown on the dashboard.

The second tab of the activity chart shows detection rates. Initially set to show the top five species detected state-wide, the detection rate chart can show much more than you may expect. If the selected species isn’t among the top five species, it will appear as a sixth bar on the chart. Additionally, individual counties can be selected to show the data for both the state and selected county. Using these features together, Sprain was able to discover that bobcat, elk, porcupine, and wolf were detected slightly more often in Jackson county, where one of his cameras is located.

Overcoming Insufficient Data

Three counties don’t show species data and are labelled as insufficient data. These counties have less than five cameras. If enough data isn’t being pulled from cameras in a county, then the dashboard doesn’t make a lot of sense. For example, let’s say you live in a county with only one camera. If a rare species like the whooping crane walks across that camera, then that species now has a 100% detection rate (one camera out of one camera) in that county. The dashboard would give off the impression that whooping cranes were extremely common in that county, when the species is actually quite rare. This is why Snapshot requires a minimum of five cameras per county before the dashboard will show data for it. If you live in a county that is labeled as Insufficient Data, then consider hosting a camera or encouraging others to host one. There are a lot of opportunities, not only on private lands, but also on public lands to host Snapshot cameras.

Cameron said, “There are a lot of ways to get involved, no matter where you are or whether you have access to land. Snapshot is a really unique project in that there are so many ways to get involved. You could host a trail camera, classify photos online or just participate in some of the educator resources. There is a lot to explore and to offer!”

Even if you are just interested in learning about wildlife in the state, you can help out Snapshot by giving them feedback on the dashboard. There is a survey at the bottom of the dashboard for anyone, not just volunteers, to offer ideas for future versions of the dashboard. After all, the Data Dashboard is designed to help Snapshot come full circle, so they want to hear from you. While not every idea can be implemented, the major themes in the survey responses impact what the team focuses on moving forward.

Cameron reiterated, “The data dashboard isn’t just for Snapshot volunteers. It is for anyone interested in Wisconsin wildlife. Snapshot and the Data Dashboard are special because they wouldn’t be possible without our trail camera hosts and folks classifying online.”

Let’s Discover Our Wildlife Together

Snapshot’s slogan, “Let’s Discover Our Wildlife Together,” isn’t a mistake. Snapshot is a project about people (from Wisconsin and across the globe) working together to monitor our wildlife. “While we know so much about Wisconsin wildlife, there is still so much we don’t know,” said Cameron. “Having tools like this dashboard help us fill in those gaps and get a more complete picture of what is really happening in Wisconsin.”

Sprain added, “[The dashboard lets] each citizen take away a piece of Wisconsin culture and have it become a part of their life. There is no denying the presence of these animals on the cameras. That is the power of this data.”

Whatever your motivation for wanting to see Wisconsin wildlife, check out Snapshot Wisconsin’s Data Dashboard. Version 1.0 is now available to the public.

Lastly, Anhalt-Depies offered Snapshot’s hope for the future of the dashboard. “We are now at a point where the project has really good coverage across the state. Our hope is that, as the dashboard evolves, it becomes a powerful tool for decision makers,” so keep an eye out for what is available in future versions of the dashboard!

You can visit the Data Dashboard at https://widnr-snapshotwisconsin.shinyapps.io/DataDashboard/.

Oh Deer! Reactions Throughout the Calendar Year

As the pandemic continues to play a large role in all of our lives, many of us have experienced a wide range of emotions throughout 2020. Some people have leaned on their sense of humor as a way to deal with stress and to share a laugh with their friends and family. The Snapshot Wisconsin Team was inspired by the recent “Covid Calendar Reaction” meme, specifically this one created by the National Park Service. We’ve put together our own using the ever-expressive faces of the many deer caught on our trail cameras. We hope it gives you a smile today!

Deer Calendar Meme

We’re Teaming up with the Natural Resources Foundation!

We are excited to share that Snapshot Wisconsin is partnering with the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin! The Natural Resources Foundation is a 501c3 nonprofit organization whose mission is to connect generations to the wonders of Wisconsin’s lands, waters, and wildlife through conservation, education, engagement, and giving.

Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin logo

A Rich History of Conservation

The Natural Resources Foundation was founded in 1986 and has grown to fill an important and unique conservation funding niche that no other organization does. Beyond providing funding for our most imperiled species and ecosystems, the Natural Resources Foundation also strives to provide meaningful opportunities for Wisconsin’s residents to connect with our natural resources.

A person standing in a prairie

Bluff Creek State Natural Area restoration work funded by the Natural Resources Foundation’s Cherish Wisconsin Outdoors Fund in 2017. Photo by Bridget Rathman.


Connections With Our State’s Natural Resources

Currently the Natural Resources Foundation offers a variety of nature connections for their members and beyond. Grants are available to educators and conservationists across the state, ranging from supplying classrooms with binoculars to reconstructing the trails of our beloved State Natural Areas.

A group of students holding butterfly nets

Thanks to a 2019 NRF Go Outside Fund grant, Caledonia Conservancy purchased new equipment for their 4th and 6th grader participants in the School to Nature Program. Photo credit: Julia Dreher.

The Foundation also operates their Field Trip program, providing an exciting variety of experiences to witness the wonders of our state’s wildlife and landscapes up close. Snapshot Wisconsin staff members have proudly served as past Field Trip leaders, educating participants about efforts to monitor the reintroduced elk populations.

Kayakers exploring a river

Kayakers explore Coldwater Canyon of the Dells of the Wisconsin River as part of the Natural Resources Foundation’s Field Trip program. Photo by Patty Henry.


What does this mean for Snapshot Wisconsin?

Forming a partnership with the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin will allow the Snapshot Wisconsin team to collaborate outside of the box. We are excited to extend volunteer opportunities to the members of the Natural Resources Foundation, including hosting a series of trail cameras on properties that have received their priority funding. For our current Snapshot Wisconsin volunteers, we are looking forward to new and exciting opportunities for trail camera hosts, students, and educators involved in the project. More to come on that later!

Three students looking at photos on a computer screen

Students classifying Snapshot Wisconsin trail camera photos. Photo by Skylar Primm.


Learn More about the Natural Resources Foundation

You can learn more about the Natural Resources Foundation, their programs and their impact at www.WisConservation.org. We look forward to this partnership and what it will mean for the Snapshot Wisconsin project!

Happy Holidays

We hope you take some time to chill with those who are deer to you. Warm wishes from all of us at the Snapshot Wisconsin team!

Photo submitted by Snapshot Wisconsin volunteer Chris Yahnke and his students at UW – Stevens Point.